From At-Large Council to Council-by-District
Detroiters voted to revise the City Charter in 2009. Based on the approved changes to the City Charter, in 2013 Detroit voters elected City Council members by district for the first time since 1918. City Council approved boundaries for seven districts, with roughly equal populations, for voters to elect one resident from each to represent them, plus two at-large council members. Until that time, Detroit was the only major U.S. city to have a city council elected completely by city-wide elections.
A 1997 study published in the journal Economics and Politics, compared the municipal records of 1,812 U.S. cities that had at-large or district-elected council members and found significant increases in spending under a district system. Some research has shown that electing councils by districts could also affect the distribution of city services, such as park maintenance, street paving, and police patrols. Supporters of the district system said it would make City Council members more accountable to city neighborhoods, and allow for currently underrepresented populations to have a say in city government.
“For the first time since 1918, you’re going to have council districts… There’s an opportunity for people to get really engaged around electing people who represent them, and getting a whole different group of people to actually run, where you don’t have to have just name recognition citywide and a lot of money.”– Demographer Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit
Council by District and Racial Representation
Depending on how the lines are drawn in Southwest Detroit, districts could increase the likelihood of Latinx representation on the council. Mexicantown has existed in Detroit since the 1920’s and it along with the Southwest Detroit area in which it exists has not only a historic Latinx population, but a growing one. Since 2000, the Southwest neighborhood Hubbard-Richard was one of only three Detroit neighborhoods to see a population increase (the population grew by 3 percent). Additionally, according to the the 2010 census 7 percent of Detroit residents overall identify as Hispanic*, and they make up a majority of residents in the city’s Chadsey, Hubbard-Richard, Springwells, and Vernor/Junction neighborhoods. The West Riverfront area is 47 percent Latinx. Despite this, Detroit had never elected a Latinx councilperson.
On one hand, a council district that exclusively represented Southwest Detroit could ensure Latinx representation on council, on the other it could limit that representation to one area. Conversely a district that covered Southwest Detroit and other areas could dilute the opportunity for Latinx representation on council.
Maps, Maps, Who’s Got the Maps?
In November 2011, Detroiters voted to create city council districts, from there it was up to the council members seated at the time to select the map that would define the district lines. The City Planning Commission offered four map options to city council for them to consider and from which they would select one. The planning commission developed their maps looking to maintain a near equal population in each district as well as existing voting precincts.
A non-profit organization, funded by the Skillman and Kresge Foundations, Data Driven Detroit (D3), proposed a fifth map. Their map was based upon population as well as maintaining connected neighborhoods within the same districts and it gained some popularity among Detroit residents.
City Council hosted ten community meetings for feedback on all of the map options and made a selection.
This Map, Not That One
The selection of a map took different factors into consideration for different people. Some community members wanted the following to be a high priority for the council members:
- Ensuring representation for Latinx Detroiters by creating a district exclusively representing Southwest Detroit
- Coming to a selection with a slower and more transparent process
- Ensuring that council members didn’t select maps that benefited them in the next election (cutting the districts based upon where they live so they can run as incumbents).
- Preventing overrepresentation of Downtown and Midtown
Additionally, the timing of the change coincided with the release of Detroit Future City’s strategic framework; a 50 year plan for the city in the following areas: economic growth, land use, neighborhoods, land and building assets, and civic capacity. The plan relied heavily on Detroit residents, neighborhoods, community organizations, and philanthropies. Some experienced this moment–the change to council by districts and the launch of DFC’s strategic framework–as one that could bridge the divide between “the neighborhoods” and downtown.
The New Districts
City Council selected one of the maps developed by the City Planning Commission and Detroit voted by district for the first time since the early 1900’s in 2013. That same year, the first Latinx councilperson, Raquel Castaneda-Lopez was elected to Detroit City Council.
*Hispanic is the Latinx ethnicity option provided by the Census
- How might council by district change the leadership of the city?
- Who are the different leaders that influenced or could influence this process?